Review of Isabelle Hamley’s book, by Helen Paynter. This review will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Biblical Theology Bulletin.

Hamley, Isabelle M. Unspeakable Things Unspoken: An Irigarayan Reading of Otherness and Victimization in Judges 19-21. Foreword by David G. Firth. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019. Pp xiii + 256. Paper, $32.00.

In this monograph Isabelle Hamley offers a thoughtful, rich reading of the final chapters of the book of Judges, read through an Irigarayan lens.

She begins with two chapters which describe Luce Irigaray’s work and its reception. She is to be congratulated for the lucidity of the way in which she conveys the complex and wide-ranging ideas that Irigaray employs. Often the descriptions of the work of critical theorists are at least as opaque as the original texts; not so here.

Her choice of an Irigarayan methodology reflects Hamley’s own starting point, which she states forthrightly, as every scholar should. ‘As a Christian feminist, I do not wish to dismiss the Christian God or the Christian Scriptures but rather find a place for reasoned understanding within Biblical Studies… a space where the text is not objectified but rather allowed to speak in its otherness’ (p.67). Irigaray serves her well in this regard, in particular in the theorist’s rejection of suspicion towards the text and her refusal to reverse the polarity of oppression; both are frequently employed by radical feminist approaches to the biblical text.

Hamley finishes the second of these chapters with a very helpful table (pp.68-70) which summarises the particular themes and elements that the Irigarayan approach causes her to focus on. It is hard to summarise these in a few words; the approach requires attention to (among other things): speech and silence, construction of gender, and power relations. Some of this may sound familiar; other critical theorists have pressed the same issues upon the reader. However, Irigaray brings a number of distinctive elements to her work, particularly her interest in the author. ‘For her there could be no death of the author, because erasing the author means erasing origins and allowing speech to be appropriated by a new totalitarian consciousness’ (p.51).

‘Levite’s Concubine’ by Jen Ford

In the third chapter Hamley offers a careful translation of the biblical chapters under discussion. This serves as a useful resource for the chapters that follow, and detailed footnotes explain the translational choices made and the exegetical decisions that they reflect.

Then follow two quite lengthy chapters; the main substance of the book. In the first of these Hamley performs a close, skilful ‘literary’ reading of the text, with attention to its final form and the historical issues that underlie it (p.94). This work is largely preliminary to the Irigarayan analysis and shows great sensitivity to the literary features of the text. Many valuable insights emerge from this reading; it would be worthy of publication in its own right, before the additional interpretive lens is applied.

The next chapter then applies the Irigarayan methodology to the carefully dissected narrative. She focusses on three main areas: identify formation (how gender and national identities are constructed and threatened), women as victimised Others; and violence, force and rape within the narrated world. Her key overarching question is how and why the text serves as Christian scripture (p.66).   

‘The Levite before the Corpse of his Wife’ by James Tissot

In her conclusion Hamley describes how she has uncovered the ‘skillful, subtle and sensitive narration’ of the text (p.211). I would use exactly the same adjectives for her reading of it. She has skilfully managed to position herself between the sometimes violence-endorsing traditional commentators and the sceptical feminist readers who – as she astutely points out – often fail to distinguish the attitudes of the characters in the text from the attitudes of the narrator (p.229). Operating in this Irigarayan space that she has opened up, she offers a close and sensitive reading of the text and her subtle and nuanced interpretation of it.

One of the things that I particularly appreciate is Hamley’s determination, as guided by the Irigarayan approach, to allow the text to speak within its own morality framework. Irigaray cautions that the modern understandings of ethically-laden words should not be uncritically read back into historical texts and events (p.43). Failure to do this results in a super-imposition of the reader’s own mores and ethical sensitivities onto a text, which can result in the occlusion of the text’s own message. Positioning the narrative within the existing ‘grammar’ of the Torah, however, permits its own – potent – ethical commentary to emerge. She does this (pp.110-114) with particular reference to the examination of a wife’s sexual fidelity in Deuteronomy 22:13-21, the treatment of the apostate town in Deuteronomy 13:12-18, and laws regarding murder and false witness in Deuteronomy 19.

The book is well-presented and the typeface is easy to read. I would, however, have appreciated at least a general index, and probably an index of authorities cited, in addition. In a few instances, the Hebrew has become reversed; I assume in the final stages of the publication process, e.g. p.104.

In its present form, this is a book for the specialist; Hamley uses untranslated Hebrew words and phrases widely. However, I hope that she will find ways of presenting her work to a wider audience, because it deserves attention well beyond the academy. Towards the end of the book she describes Judges 19-21 as ‘a perceptive psychological tale that exposes the processes through which one group justifies the victimization of another through the differential constructions of their identity’ (p.233). There could scarcely be a more relevant subject for our day.

Helen Paynter
Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence,

Unspeakable Things Unspoken

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